The problem with cultural humility

29 Jun

A colleague recently suggested that we should retire the language of “cultural proficiency” and “cultural competency” for “cultural humility.” Her argument was that fundamentally, we need to come from a place of respect for norms, worldviews and ways of being that are different and sometimes unfathomable to us.

While I agree, I also disagree. Not with the concept of mutual respect. But with the notion that everyone needs to learn cultural humility.

I would argue that many of us have experience with cultural humility as our dominant mode of interaction at work, at school and in other realms of our day to day lives. It’s hard for me to digest that, for example, LGBTTQQ folks needs to learn cultural humility, as far as engaging a heterosexual and heterosexist society. Or that Muslims need to learn cultural humility as people of faith in the Judeo-Christian normed US.

Which leads to a truth about people: our identities are multiple, complex, not equally evident on the surface when you look at us, and not equal in their impact on our status, access to resources and opportunities and inclusion in the communities in which we live. So a gay white man with a physical disability may have some cultural humility to learn, and could perhaps use some cultural uppity-ness in other aspects of his engagement with others.

But when my colleague suggested cultural humility as the right lens and means for inclusion and equity, I saw a lot of agreement. And I noticed that a lot of those nodding heads were white.

Which leads me to this reflection: I think the concept of cultural humility is rooted in a presumption of privilege and really resonates in cultures like the SF Bay Area’s, where there’s a lot of guilt over being part of dominant cultures and being privileged in any way. While sincere, this self-consciousness can also be paralyzing: I personally believe that every one of us should acknowledge, embrace, and wield the power and privilege we have for greater good. As long as we deny we have it, we effectively refuse to use it for equity and justice, and by default empower the very systems of unfair advantage that we claim to stand against. So I say, work it.

I also say: let’s be careful about advocating means to equity and justice that favor and thereby continue to empower dominant, normative cultures. That’s my fear about abandoning cultural competency/proficiency for cultural humility. Once we all feel more humble, including those of us who have been taught from the beginning that it is our place to be humble in society (because we are immigrants, because we are poor, because we are obese)… then what? And whom does that serve?

Does cultural humility make me a better, less oppressive person? Not necessarily.

What cultural competency/proficiency requires of us is that we enact our intentions for inclusion and equity in our everyday relationships and actions. Cultural competency (or proficiency, whichever you prefer) is about skills, tools, lenses and practice. It’s about what we do as individuals, and it’s about what our institutions and communities expect. Cultural competency is a means of actualizing inclusion and equity collectively, by making the practice of inclusion and equity part of the core expectations for membership in any community. Cultural competency does entail cultural humility–but competency doesn’t need to wait for, or end with a feeling.

One Response to “The problem with cultural humility”

  1. Sara D September 19, 2019 at 11:38 am #

    This is truth! I have been making this argument for a couple of years now and just reiterated my stance on this multiple times in the last couple of weeks. I think cultural humility is the wrong choice of words for a very appropriate take on how to be sensitive to others and their experiences. I have opted for cultural sensitivity, but have heard that this language isn’t quite enough either. Recently, I had two respected colleagues state that cultural humility is just ‘more woke’ and as such, should be more accepted as the standard. I argued as to why it was more woke and whether it was just trendy as opposed to thoughtful and intentional.

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